Politics always provides its share of surprises, and sometimes shocks. Even most of the latter category will pale in comparison to the stunning primary result in Virginia’s seventh Congressional district this week. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the heir apparent to Speaker John Boehner and a six-term member of Congress, lost a challenge from little-known college professor Dave Brat by double digits, despite spending twice as much on fundraising consultants than Brat spent on the entire campaign.
Normally, “no one saw this coming” is a cliché’ in service of blame dodging, but in this case it’s the truth. Cantor’s in-house pollster John McLaughlin estimated less than a week before the primary election that Cantor had a thirty-four point lead over Brat, 62-28.
Media analysts ignored the race, focusing more on Lindsey Graham’s uphill struggle to tamp down a grassroots rebellion against his re-nomination for the US Senate in South Carolina. (Graham easily passed the test, winning 57 percent of the vote over six other candidates on the ballot.) Any discussion of the Cantor-Brat race tended toward the conclusion that Tea Party, grassroots influence on GOP leadership was on the wane.
That assumption went out the window last night, along with Cantor’s supposed 34-point lead. Analysts struggled for an analog to the seismic upset, but none seems to quite fit. No sitting House Majority Leader has failed to win his party’s nomination since the office was created in 1899.
The only roughly similar shock was Speaker Tom Foley’s loss in 1994, but that came in a general election against well-funded Republican George Nethercutt in a general election, and took place in the historic midterm election in Bill Clinton’s first term that gave control of the House to the GOP for the first time in 40 years. Foley had been in Congress for 30 years, while Cantor had less than half that tenure representing VA-07.
Attempting to piece together the reasons for Cantor’s fall is a difficult process for everyone who had no clue it was happening. Instant analysis and hypotheses ranged from the reasonable and well informed (Cantor’s support for immigration reform and a lack of constituent contact as contributing factors) to the paranoid. Oddly enough, The Wall Street Journal fell into the latter category.
Reid Epstein seized on a paper written by Professor Brat about the lack of Christian resolve against Adolf Hitler that warned that history could repeat itself, and twisted it into an insinuation of anti-Semitism in the effort to unseat Cantor (one of the few Jews in Congress) from Republican leadership. Epstein wrote, “David Brat, the Virginia Republican who shocked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R- VA) Tuesday, wrote in 2011 that Hitler’s rise ‘could all happen again, quite easily,’” adding, “The reference to Hitler’s Germany that is likely to turn heads during Mr. Brat’s first full day as a Tea Party star.”
The suggestion is ridiculous on its face. Cantor won six elections in the seventh district prior to 2014, including two election cycles in 2010 and 2012 when the Tea Party grassroots were active across the nation and in Virginia. Brat’s actual argument contradicts the insinuation in the WSJ article, warning that a lack of vigilance against moral drift could produce another Hitler rather than cheer the prospect.
Brat’s arguments that increasingly coercive policies from the Right and Left will enable the rise of fascism are certainly debatable, but hardly unique or out of the mainstream. Brat’s entire point is to oppose such an outcome, not endorse it, and doesn’t touch on anti-Semitism at all.
Opposition to Cantor’s perceived support for immigration reform seemed like a likelier reason for Brat’s stunning win, but the data doesn’t give much support to that conclusion either. Democrats were quick to point to a recent PPP poll in the district that showed high support for immigration reform, 70/27, while also showing that Cantor himself was deeply unpopular.
Even among Republicans in Cantor’s district, he only registered a 43/40 approval rating, and a dismal 30/63 among the general population. Furthermore, both Graham and Rep. Renee Ellmers survived grassroots primary challenges that focused much more explicitly on support for immigration reform by incumbent Republicans.
Some wondered whether the difference in Cantor’s approval levels indicated that Democrats might have turned out heavily for the open primary required by Virginia’s election laws. Democrats didn’t have a competitive primary to compete with the Cantor race, but a look at precinct turnout and results by Nate Cohn tends to disprove that theory.
The primary generated a large increase in turnout from the 2012 cycle, nearly 50 percent more votes, and most of that increase came from heavily Republican precincts. Despite that increase, Brat ran ahead of Cantor in those precincts, while Cantor’s vote total fell by almost 10,000 from his 2012 victory, and Brat beat Cantor by more than 7,000.
So what did happen? Cantor appears to have lost touch with his constituents and their need for a champion rather than a disconnected politician climbing the ladder in nearby Washington DC. One early warning sign missed by most pundits was an action by activists in Cantor’s district to oust one of his allies from the chair of the county Republican Party last month. The district convention signaled deep unhappiness with Cantor on the grass-roots level, and with the party establishment on both the state and federal levels.
That should have alerted Cantor that any idea of a 34-point lead in the district was fanciful and that long-term complaints about his focus might put him in danger. Dumping tons of money into negative-campaign attacks against Brat not only raised his profile, but also aggravated the problem. Cantor would have done better to spend the money on positive advertising and retail politicking, rather than taking his district for granted.
To that point, Brat gave voters a reason to turn out and send a populist message to the state and national party. Immigration may be part of that, but it’s not the whole reason, or even the most important part. Brat offered a purpose and a moral perspective on which voters could choose, while Cantor’s engagement with the district presented more of a calculation about power and influence.
That argument might have worked in the past as voters put more trust in institutions, but as Ron Fournier argued at National Journal, those days are passing away on both side of the aisle into a more iconoclastic populism that targets the institutions and the power they wield. Cantor’s high profile as a House GOP leader, added to his lack of connection to home-district voters within a day’s drive from his Washington DC offices, combined to put the former heir apparent out of the succession altogether.
John Donne once wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” but incumbents in both parties might want to at least ask whether the bell is tolling for them. The fall of Eric Cantor will not remain a singular event as long as politicians across the spectrum aggravate the decline in institutional trust through cynical calculation, and then fail to recognize the shifts in the electorate it causes. Voters want authentic voices to represent their interests and moral values, and they’re getting tired of the games played by Beltway politicians.
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